Frank’s Steak House is not a place people go for a fine dining experience.
Pairs of 60-something women come on Sunday afternoon to share a bottle of wine and have an early bird special, maybe chicken Parmigiana or a 9-ounce sirloin with a salad, baked potato, ice cream sundae, and coffee for $13.95. At Frank’s, lonely guys play Keno at the bar while the waitstaff sings happy birthday to an 80-year-old woman with her adult children and teenage grandkids.
The food can be tasty, but the food is not the most remarkable thing about Frank’s. The 75-year-old North Cambridge steakhouse is a place suspended in time, one that hangs Christmas cards from its customers on the wall and has signed photographs of local sports stars and politicians in the lobby — including the neighborhood’s own Tip O’Neill.
Older customers with canes and portable oxygen make the trek to Frank’s, as do young couples with limited funds who come for $22 surf and turf dinners and $6 glasses of wine. At the end of their shifts, servers sit at the bar to eat steak and watch football and talk to the regulars.
That’s the kind of loyalty Frank’s inspires, not only from its customers, but from its staff. The chef has worked in the kitchen since 1982 but only took over the top job a few months ago.
Frank’s is so old — the oldest steakhouse in Greater Boston, according to the website — that no one seems to know who Frank was, not even the two brothers who took over the restaurant from their father, who bought it in 1974. The menu tells the story of a “friendly drunk” named Frank who used to be a regular at the bar. Others say it’s named for a cross street the restaurant was on when it opened across Massachusetts Avenue.
Regardless of who Frank was, the place is all his.
The restaurant was still decked out in its Christmas best on a recent Friday night, with fake wreaths on the wall and shiny bells, balls, and baubles hanging from the ceiling. Smooth jazz played on the stereo as a bus boy swept the carpet, then returned to set up a banquet table for a funeral reception the next day.
Frank’s got a makeover last year, with new carpet, booths, fixtures, and wall coverings, though it looks much the same as it used to. The bar was redesigned, with more TVs but no more live music, ending the reign of the raucous boogie-woogie piano player Preacher Jack.
“I’m always surprised that this place is still here,” said one diner, looking around the bustling dining room on a Friday night.
Customers flock to Frank’s for bacony potato skins soft with grease, for tender, bloody slabs of prime rib, and fried boneless chicken breasts slathered in gravy. What they don’t come for, apparently, is the pasta. “Everything’s good here,” our server tells us, “but not the pasta.”
We follow the lead, at least on the first visit, and also do as we are told when it comes to the onion loaf appetizer. Get it loose, the server says, so we do, and end up with a plate of onion rings instead of the cake they are usually fried into.
More enticing are meaty, spicy buffalo wings and the bruschetta, which turns out to be more of a French-bread pizza topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and scallions. The clam chowder, however, is a gluey stew, pushed aside after a few spoonfuls.
Maple bourbon-glazed pork chops, ordered because they are the only chops on the menu not billed as boneless, are in fact also boneless, and on the dry and tasteless side, topped with an overpowering sweet, peppery glaze and served with applesauce straight from the jar.
The ribeye — unhappily ordered by a regular after finding out that there was no more prime rib — is thin and unevenly cooked, half medium, half medium-rare, as if the steak had been partially pushed off the stove while cooking.
We save the 3-pound tomahawk Delmonico steak, served on a foot-and-a-half-long bone, for a Sunday afternoon visit. It’s billed as “plenty for two, a monster for the average human,” although the average human at our table claims he could have polished it off in one sitting if he hadn’t been trying to be polite. The $50 steak, the most expensive item on the menu by far, is tender but fatty and — like many items on the menu — in need of seasoning.
Sauteed mushrooms have only a hint of flavor. Ditto for the ziti with overcooked chicken and lightly steamed broccoli — but we had been warned, hadn’t we?
The lack of salt is intentional, the chef tells us later, out of concern for customers with high blood pressure.
But there are plenty of satisfying options to choose from: perfectly pink prime rib; deep-fried shrimp scampi, served with chunks of garlic and buttery rice; Sicilian calamari, slathered in romano cheese and garlic-infused olive oil; the turkey dinner with mounds of roast breast meat, buttery squash studded with nutmeg, and sweet sausage stuffing.
The famous Sizzler doesn’t disappoint, a New York strip sirloin served hissing in a cast iron skillet, with a nice crust and just the right amount of rosy juices. Just beware, the smell of fried meat may well linger on your clothes after you leave.
Two homemade desserts on the menu — hot apple crisp cooled with vanilla ice cream and light, jiggly Grape-Nut custard, both doused in mounds of whipped cream — don’t seem to be what we need after a heavy, meaty meal, but in fact, they are.
Bar customers can get lobster, meatball, or prime rib sliders, and can order off the menu after the dining room is closed. We go for the meatball: a baseball-size springy orb served with chunky tomato sauce that squishes nicely between crusty buns.
Service could be more attentive. Our waiter brings out the monster tomahawk steak before clearing appetizer plates, forcing us to juggle dishes and glasses. When he brings the bill, our cold french fries are still on the table.
But maybe that’s the kind of casual place Frank wants it to be. At the end of our first visit, our waitress pads out of the coat room in her socks, shoes in hand, as she gets ready to go home for the night.
Is it the best meal you’ll ever have? No. But it’s affordable and familiar and authentically Frank’s, and the regulars who keep coming back wouldn’t have it any other way.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.